Monday, December 12, 2011

Rosewill RNX-G1 USB 2.0 Wireless Adapter


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Works well, keeps a good signal, works in Windows, Mac and Linux
Cons: No 802.11n support, doesn't sit quite right in horizontally aligned USB ports

We have too many computers around here to have them all physically connected with Ethernet cables, so I hopped on Newegg to search for an inexpensive wireless adapter. I wanted to pick up adapters for two different computers, but wanted to be able to switch them from one computer to another in case we rearranged anything and needed them in different computers. For this reason, I decided that a wireless adapter with a standard USB port would be the way to go. The Rosewill RNX-G1 Wireless Black Dongle was $10 with free shipping, so I ordered a couple of them up and awaited their arrival. They also make a version that is white in color if it would match your system better.
 
The RNX-G1 Wireless Adapter came in a black retail box with a thin piece of moulded plastic holding the adapter and the screw-on antenna. Underneath the plastic was a sleeve containing a CD with the device driver, a quick installation guide (PDF) and the user manual (PDF).
 
The device is about the size of a USB flash drive, measuring about 3.5" long, 1" wide, a half inch tall and weighing about 1 ounce. It also has a 3.5" external 2dBi antenna that screws onto the end and has a blue activity light in the middle of the device. The antenna is adjustable - it can stick straight out the end of the device, or bend up to 90º and also rotate in a complete circle so that you can aim the antenna wherever you need to get the best signal. It can operate in temperatures ranging from 0ºC to 55ºC and be stored in temperatures ranging from -20ºC to 70ºC, at up to 90% humidity (non-condensing).
 
When you put the CD in the drive and let it auto-run, it brings up a menu that lets you install the driver, view the quick install guide, view the user manual, browse the CD or exit the software. For my purposes, I obviously wanted "Driver Installation", which gave me a choice of operating systems to install the drivers for. It had options for both 64-bit and 32-bit versions of Windows 7, Windows XP and Windows Vista. I'm using a 64-bit version of Windows 7 on this computer, but I imagine other versions are installed in a similar manner.
 
The software installed the REALTEK RTL8187 Wireless LAN Driver and Utility on my computer. Installation only took a minute, and this particular driver required a computer restart when completed. After the computer was finished restarting, I screwed the antenna onto the wireless adapter and plugged it into an available USB 2.0 port. It was immediately detected and configured, and I was left with an icon in my system tray. All I had to do was open it up, click on "Available Network" and double click on the name of my home network to connect.
 
Installation of the second device was even easier, as the computer that device was installed in was running Linux Mint instead of Windows. All I had to do was plug the device into a USB port and wait a few seconds. The wireless adapter was automatically installed and configured and waiting for me in my network manager in the system tray. All I had to do was click the name of my home wireless network and let it connect, easy as pie.
 
The device supports a variety of security. Aside from the open system, it also supports using a shared key, WPA-PSK, WPA2-PSK, WPA-802.1x, WPA2-902.1x and WEP-802.1x network authentication. It also supports WEP data encryption. It can operate on 11 different frequencies from 2412MHz to 2462MHz, as well as switching between 802.11b or 802.11b/g settings. It works in both Ad-hoc and infrastructure mode, and features a power saving mode that can be set to min, max or none. I leave mine set to none because I use my computer a lot and want to make sure it's always working at it's best when I want to use it.
 
I'm connected to a Linksys WRT-56G router about 30 feet away, and I'm showing 96% signal strength and 91% link quality. There is also a wall, an LCD television, DVD player and a Nintendo Wii between this computer and the router. I haven't noticed any difference in speed or latency between this wireless adapter and the 25' Ethernet cable I had stretched over here previously. I've had no problems at all with the performance, always getting a clean and steady signal to my router without much added latency or packet loss/retransmission.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a 802.11b/g device, and does not support 802.11n. My router doesn't support the newer 802.11n standard so this was an inexpensive option for me, but if your router does support it you may want to pass on this and spring for a faster 802.11n device instead.
 
There are only a couple of minor negatives I have noted, and neither is related to the performance of the device. First of all, the cap will be easy to lose. It fits over the USB end of the device in one direction, and if you leave the device plugged in all the time for internet access that thing is going to get misplaced for sure. Secondly, the length of the unit with the antenna screwed on the end makes it tilt downward slightly when it's plugged into a horizontally aligned USB port. I've not had any problems with it falling out or harming the USB port or the USB end of the device in any way, but I still don't much care for it.
 
The RNX-G1 Wireless Adapter is compatible with Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP/Vista, Mac 10.3+, and like I said earlier it plugged in and worked instantly in Linux Mint as well. It comes with a 1 year warranty from Rosewill.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

AMD Athlon II X3 450 3.2GHz Triple-Core Processor

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great budget processor that performs well for everyday use.
Cons: Only 3 cores, not going to set any speed or performance records.

Current System

AMD Athlon II X3 450 3.2GHz Processor
Antec 300 Case
ASUS DRW-24B1ST 24x DVD Burner
ASUS M4A87TD EVO AMD870 Motherboard
ASUS Radeon HD 6850 1GB Video Card
Corsair Builder Series CX600 PSU
G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB Hard Drive
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Samsung SyncMaster 2333T 23" LCD Widescreen Monitor
 
You can always count on AMD for a nice budget-friendly multi-core CPU. The AMD Athlon II X3 450 is a great bargain, running about $76 at the time of this writing. For that paltry sum, you get a triple-core processor that's clocked at 3.2GHz and contains 128kb (64kb data and 64kb instruction) of 2-way L1 cache memory and 512kb of 16-way L2 cache memory per core. Sadly it contains no L3 cache, but for the price difference that was a concession I was willing to make. If you want to pay a little extra for a stable fourth core and 6MB of L3 cache, you can always pick up an AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition Processor. At the time of this writing, it costs about $117 where the AMD Athlon II X3 450 costs about $76.
 
The AMD Athlon II X3 450 is a 64-bit processor that supports 4000MHz HyperTransport 3. It features an integrated 144-bit DDR2/3 memory controller, has a maximum TDP (Thermal Design Power) of 95W and is manufactured using a 45nm SOI (Silicon on Insulator) process with Immersion Lithography to cram more transistors into a smaller space. It supports MMX, 3DNow!, AMD64, SSE/2/3/4a, Advanced Bit Manipulation and AMD-V Virtualization Technology. It also supports AMD Cool'n'Quiet 3.0, which does a number of things to make your processor run cooler, quieter and use less energy. This includes automatically throttling your CPU to a slower speed or turning processor cores off when they're not in use to conserve power. This is all transparent to you and I, which makes it a total win.
 
The retail box comes complete with the processor, a heatsink/fan combo and an installation guide/warranty information booklet that unfolds to quite a large size. Installation is simple; First, locate the CPU socket on your motherboard. Pull up the metal retention lever, and then line up the gold arrow on one corner of your processor with the arrow on the CPU socket and gently set the processor into the socket. Push the retention lever down and you're done. Next, look at the heatsink/fan combo and notice that it has a metal clip on one side, and a metal clip attached to a plastic retention lever on the other. Put the metal clip over the tab, and then put the clip with retention lever onto the other tab and push the retention lever down. Plug in the fan cable to the connector labeled CPU fan on your motherboard, and you're all set.
 
When I built this computer, I was going for a budget build that would play all the current games that I wanted to play. The price of the AMD Athlon II X3 450 was terrific, and my previous computer only had a dual core processor anyway so it would be an upgrade regardless. Also, as far as gaming goes, many games still don't take advantage of more than 2 processor cores anyway. The third core is nice to offload some of the operating system onto though, freeing up 2 for the games. As an added bonus, saving around $40 by getting this instead of the Phenom allowed me to knock my video card budget up by that same amount and squeak out a better performance increase on that end where it would be more useful to me.
 
The AMD Athlon II X3 450 is a socket AM3 "Rana" triple-core processor. This is basically a "Propus" quad-core processor with one of the cores disabled. Usually the core is disabled because it failed testing at the factory, however, the disabled core can sometimes be unlocked through your motherboard's BIOS and it will function just fine. Unfortunately this was not the case for me, as attempting to unlock the fourth core of my processor led to hard crashes and instability. I could only get it to run decently if I pumped a lot more voltage to it. Not only was I uncomfortable with the level of voltage required to get it to run, but it also ran much hotter, and my stock heatsink and fan would have been completely unable to cool it adequately if I had left it enabled.
 
Overclocking the AMD Athlon II X3 450 was a different story. I was able to easily bump it from 3.2GHz to 3.6GHz without raising the CPU core voltage above 1.44v. However, I'm using the stock heatsink and fan in this system, when I stress tested the system in Prime95 and watched the temperatures in Open Hardware Monitor, they were climbing entirely too high for my liking so I stopped the stress test and backed the overclock down. Keeping it at 3.4GHz, it passed 24 hours of Prime95 stress testing in blend mode with a peak temperature of 73ºC. Since the maximum operating temperature of the processor is 75ºC, I didn't want to push it any further. During heavy gaming sessions (playing Total War: Shogun 2, which is a pretty CPU intensive game) the max temperature doesn't even reach 60ºC. If you picked up a decent aftermarket heatsink/fan like the COOLER MASTER Hyper 212 Plus (about $25) and a tube of Arctic Silver thermal compound, I'm sure you'd have no trouble with a 3.6 GHz or 3.7 GHz overclock.
 
The AMD Athlon X3 450 is by no means a top of the line powerhouse of a processor. You won't be setting any world records for performance, but it's a work horse that is more than adequate for the majority of every day computing needs. I use my computer for a lot of heavy gaming, a little bit of computer programming, as well as web browsing and some photo and video editing. This processor has performed admirably for everything I want to do with it, and I've been very happy with my choice so far.
 
I chose to pair it with the ASUS M4A87TD EVO AMD870 Motherboard for a couple of reasons. First of all, the motherboard was a good price and fit within my budget. It also had dual PCI Express 2.0 ports, so I could install a second video card in a dual GPU CrossFireX configuration in the future if I needed to. It also supported DDR3 memory, had USB 3.0 support, and had TurboV EVO for easy overclocking. The nail in the coffin was the ASUS Core Unlocker, which made it easy to attempt to unlock the fourth core on this processor. I figured that if it worked, that would just be an added bonus and make the budget system all that much better, and if it didn't work I wasn't out anything by trying as the three stock cores would be plenty of processing power for my needs anyway.
 
For those of you interested in benchmarks, they were ran at stock 3.2GHz speeds where the processor achieved a Windows Experience Index rating of 6.9.
 
SiSoft Sandra Lite 2011.10.17.80
 
Aggregate Arithmetic Performance: 31.17 GOPS
Dhrystone ALU: 34.12 GIPS
Whetstone SSE3: 28.48 GFLOPS

Aggregate Multi-Media Performance: 53.34 MPix/s
Multi-Media Integer x16 SSE2: 41.5 MPix/s
Multi-Media Float x8 SSE2: 68.57 MPix/s
Multi-Media Double x4 SSE2: 37.35 MPix/s
 
PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0

CPU Mark: 3133.9
Integer Math: 483.0
Floating Point Math: 2438.7
Find Prime Numbers: 751.6
SSE: 12.4
Compression: 3330.4
Encryption: 14.9
Physics: 166.4
String Sorting: 2219.1

Hyper PI 0.99b

Test: 1M
Instances: 3
Best Time: 26.377s
Worst Time:  26.605s
Average:  26.456s

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Lite-On SK-1688U/B Keyboard

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Works well and is pretty durable
Cons: Rubber feet wear off in a mess, remaining plastic is a little uneven

I bought this Lite-On SK-1688U/B Keyboard about 5 years ago, and I've been pretty happy with it. It's lasted longer than most generic keyboards, and though I've replaced it with the Logitech K120 Keyboard I still keep the Lite-On as a spare. I don't remember exactly what I paid for it, but it was around $10. My only problems with the keyboard have been the plastic feet on the bottom (detailed below), and the LED for the number lock key has dimmed by about 90% over all this time.

It's a standard black 104 key membrane switch keyboard with a QWERTY layout. Now there's a couple different QWERTY layouts - one with an L-shaped enter button, and one with a straight enter button. Whenever I use one with the L-shaped button, I'm constantly hitting enter instead of backslash and backslash instead of backspace. It annoys me, so I always make sure to get one like this with a straight enter button layout. It has no extra media, sleep or power buttons or anything of the sort. I occasionally hit one of these buttons on accident when moving my keyboard around, so I always make sure to get a keyboard like this that does not have them.

The keyboard measures 18" long and 7" deep. It's not heavy, but has a little more weight to it than most budget keyboards. It's about 1" tall in the front and 1.5" tall in the back, creating a slight forward angle even without the plastic stands on the bottom flipped out. If you use the stands, it adds an additional 3/4" or so to the height in the rear. While the stands are still in good condition, I haven't really used them very much due to the slight angle the keyboard already had when flat. There's no rubber non-slip surface on the bottom of the stands, so it tended to slide around a bit when I did use them.

There are 4 rubber coated plastic feet on the bottom of the keyboard - one in each corner. Unfortunately, the rubber wore off surprisingly fast. Not only that, but as it wore off it smeared black rubber marks all over my desk as the keyboard slid around a little bit here and there. It was surprisingly hard to remove from the desk surface, and I've found the feet underneath are not level. There's about 1/16" difference between the tallest one (right rear) and the shortest one (left rear). This makes the keyboard jostle around a bit as I type, despite the fact that it's a little heavier than my other one.

The keys themselves are about 3/8" tall and slightly concave on top which allows your fingers to sit on them nicely. Key travel is average, but they have a good feel to them and are quite responsive. They're also quiet - no clicking, clacking or ticking while typing. The letters painted on the keys haven't started to wear off yet, but the clear textured finish has - especially on the enter button, space bar, arrow keys and W/A/S/D keys that I use a lot. The letters are a little thin and the paint a little dull, also the left arrow key is also starting to become loose and wobble around, though it's still attached and functioning. I can still clearly feel the ridges on the F and J keys, and I can't complain for 5 years of heavy use.

There's not much trim around the groups of keys, nor around the outside of the keyboard. The trim in the front is rounded down and the sides have a sort of twist to make them lower in the corners than in the middle - but they strangely decided to leave all 4 corners of the keyboard squared. It has a 52" USB interface cable and is Plug-and-Play capable with any semi-modern operating system. The Lite-On SK-1688U/B Keyboard is made in China and backed up by a 1 year limited warranty.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Logitech K120 Keyboard



Rating:  5 out of 5

Pros: Slim, sleek, light-weight, durable and comfortable
Cons: None

When I purchased my new Logitech M515 Wireless Mouse a few months ago, I picked up this black Logitech K120 Keyboard to go along with it. My old Lite-On Keyboard was still functional after about 5 years, but a couple of it's buttons were wearing out and the rubber feet on the bottom were coming off, so it was due to be replaced anyway. There were a few things about the Logitech K120 Keyboard that persuaded me to purchase it instead of another keyboard.

First of all, it's a standard 104 key QWERTY keyboard. It has full sized function keys and no extra random buttons such as sleep, media controls or power buttons. I really don't like keyboards with those extra buttons, as I often find myself inadvertantly hitting them. It's really annoying when you're in the middle of something and accidentally put your computer to sleep or turn on some blaring music while someone is trying to sleep in the next room. The keys press firmly and quietly, and it's a pretty comfortable keyboard to type on.

The Logitech K120 is not a large keyboard. It's sleek, slim and light-weight - measuring about 18 inches long, 6 inches deep and 3/4 of an inch tall. The keys are only about a quarter of an inch tall, which I really like as it reduces key travel by about 50% compared to my previous keyboard. I type over 100 words per minute, and I really like when a keyboard doesn't become a limiting factor. There's also not a lot of extra space or trim around the keyboard, and there's none at all between the groups of keys. Keys that are closer together help to promote faster typing because they reduce the distance you have to move your fingers to get from one key to another.

The space bar is slightly curved at the bottom, making it a little deeper in the middle so it's easier to hit from different hand positions. It's not oversized, but that slight depth increase is definitely beneficial to me. The keys are durable and are supposed to last up to 10 million keystrokes - excluding the number lock key for some reason. The white characters are bright, bold and easy to read. The Logitech K120 Keyboard also features a spill resistant design, where liquid drains out of the keyboard through 2 small slots in the bottom.

The keyboard lays nice and flat, but also has a pair of plastic feet on the bottom that can be flipped down to raise the back of the keyboard an additional 3/4 of an inch. This tilts the keyboard about 8 degrees forward, and this is how I use my keyboard because it feels more comfortable and I don't have to lean forward far enough to be directly above the keyboard. The feet are just thin plastic, but they seem pretty durable and after a few months of usage I don't foresee having any problems with them. These plastic feet, as well as the bottom of the keyboard itself, have little pieces of rubber on the bottom to help keep the keyboard from sliding around on your desk.

Inside the retail box was a getting started guide (which was rather humorous as the only things it said were to turn the computer on and plug the keyboard in), an information sheet with various warnings about LEDs, lasers and warranty information, and the keyboard itself. The 5 foot long USB cable was neatly folded up, twist-tied and tucked under a cardboard flap to keep it from banging into the keyboard during shipping, and the whole keyboard was wrapped in a plastic bag to keep dust and dirt out.

Like most Logitech products, the K120 is backed up by a 3 year warranty. I have no trouble believing that the keyboard will still be in use long after the warranty is expired.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Logitech Harmony 300 Universal Remote Control


Rating: 1 out of 5
Pros: Sleek looking remote, controls up to 4 devices
Cons: Software doesn't support Linux, requires internet access, remote didn't work correctly

I'm a big fan of Logitech products, and I've had great results in the past from them. I have a Logitech K120 Keyboard, a Logitech M515 Wireless Mouse and a Logitech Dual Action Game Pad that I really love, as well as a regular wired Logitech M100 Mouse that I used before I picked up the wireless one. These were all outstanding products, so I had high hopes for the Logitech Harmony 300 Universal Remote Control as well.

It came in a retail blister pack, and featured an easy open back. I really like this type of packaging, as you can grab the corner and peel the reverse side of the package all the way down to the bottom and get to the stuff inside without breaking out some industrial strength scissors or a knife and risk damaging the contents. There was a quick-start guide, 2 Duracell AA batteries and a 2 foot USB cable included. The quick-start guide had basic instructions in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. The remote can control up to 4 devices including televisions, cable or satellite boxes, DVD players or VCRs.

First step, install the included batteries in the remote. Second, write down the manufacturer and model number from the back of your devices that you wish to use with the remote. Third, hook the remote up to a computer using the supplied USB cable. Go to myharmony.com and follow the on-screen instructions to create a Harmony account and install the My Harmony software to get the remote working with your devices. Sounds easy enough, and I figured it would be nice that there is no book full of a million different random codes to punch in to get my devices working. That, and then there's the fact that I usually lose my code book within a couple months of ownership and when I get a new television or finally pick up that Blu-ray player I've been putting off, I wouldn't be able to use my remote anymore.

The remote is about 9 inches long and 2.5 inches wide. It's about an inch tall at the bottom where the batteries go, and about a half inch tall in the front. It's fairly light-weight, weighing about 6 ounces. The 2 foot USB cable has a standard Type A plug that goes into your computer on one end, and Mini-B port on the other end which plugs into your Harmony remote. Strangely, it plugs directly into the front of the remote - right dead center in the front tip. While there's nothing wrong with that, it just seems like an odd place for it to go.

It's a pretty sleek looking remote, glossy black on the top and flat black on the bottom. It's a sexy looking remote, unfortunately the top really shows fingerprints and is a dust and hair magnet. It also looks like it would be comfortable to hold onto, but it's really not. Being so thin in the front, when you hold the remote it always feels like it wants to slide backwards out of your hand. It feels fine if you hold onto it near the bottom, but then you are unable to reach the buttons on the top half. The buttons are not back-lit (with the exception of the 4 device buttons that light up when you chose which device to control) and there is no LCD screen. To be fair though, it's an inexpensive remote and I did not expect a display and I only needed to control 2 devices.

It has a wide variety of buttons, including all the standard numbers, volume and channel controls, menu, exit and guide buttons, as well as standard play/stop/pause/etc. It also has arrow buttons in the center of the remote, some favorite buttons and even a one-touch Watch TV button at the top that can turn two devices on simultaneously. The buttons are all black rubber. They are firm and tight in their holes and are labeled clearly.

Anxious to try it out, it's time to program the remote and see how well it works! I opened up a new tab in Google Chrome and went to myharmony.com to program my remote. I clicked on the button labeled Setup my Harmony remote and... we're not off to a good start. I got a message stating:

This software doesn't support your browser or operating system. 
The following platforms are supported:
Microsoft® Windows XP or Vista with Internet Explorer 7+, or Firefox 3+
Microsoft® Windows 7 with Internet Explorer 8+ or Firefox 3+
Intel Mac OS® 10.4.8+ with Firefox 3+ or Safari 4+

Well that's a bit irritating. I use Google Chrome 99% of the time, and I use Linux Mint instead of Windows 7 part of the time as well. Oh well, if the remote works well I can deal with the setup. After all, I should only have to do it once and then it should work fine after that with no additional hassle. I installed Mozilla Firefox along side of Google Chrome and again went to myharmony.com to setup the remote. This time when I clicked the button, it worked fine. It asked me for my first and last name, what country I was from, my email address to use as a login, and a password. It also asked me for a security question in case I ever forget my password. There were only 5 questions to choose from, but they were pretty standard.

Next it had to download the software to my computer, which was 10.9 MB in size. The window said after the software installation was complete I would be directed to the next page automatically. The download took a few minutes, and the installation only took a minute or so. The window then went to the next page where I watched a spinning blue circle with some type of progress percentage in the middle for another minute. Next I was told to insert the batteries into the remote and connect it to the computer with the supplied USB cable to continue. Finally, it said I should write down the model numbers of my devices and then input them into the page so they could be placed on my remote and synced.

First I added my Philips DVD Player. The model number on the back says DPV5992/37, so I entered Philips for the manufacturer and DPV5992/37 for the model number.

Are you sure?
We didn't find the device you entered.
Please double-check that your device is:
Philips DPV5992/37
Yes, that's it.
No, that's not it.

I tried it again, omitting the /37 in case that was the problem, but I got the same result. I checked "Yes, that's it." to continue. It then gave me a drop-down box asking what type of device I was adding, and I selected "DVD, Blu-ray or VCR". It gave me a couple of check boxes to select the items that applied to my device, these included "It plays Blu-ray, DVDs", "It records on DVD", "It plays video tapes", "It plays radio" and "It plays Laserdiscs". The wording was a little strange, as my device plays DVDs but not Blu-rays, but I chose the first option anyway since I had to choose at least one.

The next screen asked me if I had the original remote that came with my device, because if I did then it may provide additional information to help add my device more completely and accurately. I selected "Yes, I have it". The following screen looked promising, it informed me that I was going to use my original remote to "teach" the Harmony remote about my device. I was to point the original remote at the bottom of my Harmony remote and then align the 2 remotes in a straight line about 3 inches apart. Next, I was supposed to press the Power On/Off button on the original remote.

Please try again. We are having trouble recognizing the command you are trying to teach.

I must teach or skip each command to proceed, the Back and Next buttons were both greyed out and unclickable. Ok, so I guess I skip the power. Next it asked me to press the 1 button on my original remote. I did this about 5 times, and got no response at all from the application any of the times. The Back and Next buttons were still greyed out and unclickable, all I could do was cancel adding my device or skip the 1 button as well. I skipped it and it popped up a box asking me if I wanted to continue trying to add my device. I obviously did, so I clicked yes and continued.

Next it asked me to push the Play button, no response from the program yet again. It was the Menu button after that, and again no response. Wow, this thing is turning out to be quite the piece of trash. Channel Up was the last button it asked for, and after I skipped that one too it returned me to the main "Add Your Devices" screen and said my Harmony 300 now controls 1 device. Before I tried it out to see if it really added it or not, I figured I would add my television as well.

I entered RCA for the manufacturer, and L42FHD37YX8 for the model number written on the back of the television.

Are you sure?
We didn't find the device you entered.
Please double-check that your device is:
RCA L42FHD3YX8
Yes, that's it.
No, that's not it.

Sigh. Yes, that's it. I selected "TV or Display" from the drop-down box, and selected "It can change channels" from the check boxes. The other boxes were "It has a built-in DVD player", "It has a built-in VCR", "It has a built-in hard disk" and "None of the above". None of those applied to me, so I clicked Next.

Again, yes I have the original remote. "Please try again. We are having trouble recognizing the command you are trying to teach." This time at least, pointing the original remote at the back of the Harmony and pressing the indicated buttons worked correctly, and I was rewarded with a new screen. "You have added your RCA L42FHD3YX8. Thank you for your patience!"

Next I got a Sync Remote screen, while it updated my Harmony remote with the information in my account. It told me not to disconnect the remote until the sync is completed, which only took a minute.

"Congratulations! Setup is complete and you can disconnect and use your remote." Clicking Finish brought me to the My Harmony home page. From the home page I'm able to add or adjust devices, setup favorite channels, fix or change buttons that don't seem to work correctly, and setup favorite channels for my television.

Well, after all of that trouble, it's still a piece of junk. I can turn the television's power on and off, change the channels and adjust the volume, as well as select the various input channels for the DVD player, the Wii and the other game consoles that are hooked up. Unfortunately, that's about all that I can do. None of the buttons work to change the television's display format between standard, stretched, Cinerama or zoomed. Also, while I can bring up the menu and close it afterward, none of the buttons work to scroll through it or select anything from it. Disappointing. There are 5 customizable buttons that I could setup to perform these tasks, but it would have been nice if the corresponding buttons on the Harmony performed the same functions as they did on the original remote. That, and the fact that it's a pain to use the slow My Harmony software to assign buttons and get them to function correctly.

The DVD player did fare a little better, but was still not great. I could turn it off and on; I could even play, stop, pause, fast forward, etc. through my videos. Unfortunately, my DVD player has a button that lets me switch between playing DVDs from the drive or playing video content from the USB port, and there was no button that would work to switch between the two on the Harmony remote.

It claims to have a constantly updated database, and that "Your remote won't become obsolete when manufacturers release new products or when you buy a new TV or add a Blu-ray player to your setup". It also claims that setup is a snap. "Connect your remote to your computer. Tell us about your devices. We take care of the hard stuff". Unfortunately neither of the 2 devices I own were in the database, and setup was anything but snappy. There's not even a code list to fall back on if their slow software won't make your devices work correctly. On top of that, since the one and only way to program your remote is over the internet, if you don't have internet access then you can't use this thing at all. The fact that the software requires having a Mac or a recent version of Windows installed also means you can't use it if you use Linux or something else as your primary operating system.

I wanted so badly to like the Logitech Harmony 300 Universal Remote Control, I really did. Too bad it ended up being so useless.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

ASUS DRW-24B1ST DVD Burner

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Reliable and fast
Cons: A little loud at full speed

Current System

AMD Athlon II X3 450 3.2GHz Processor
Antec 300 Case
ASUS DRW-24B1ST 24x DVD Burner
ASUS M4A87TD EVO AMD870 Motherboard
ASUS Radeon HD 6850 1GB Video Card
Corsair Builder Series CX600 PSU
G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB Hard Drive
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Samsung SyncMaster 2333T 23" LCD Widescreen Monitor


Introduction

When I assembled this most recent computer, I went ahead and purchased a new DVD burner so that I could leave the old one in the previous computer that it was already installed in. When it comes to DVD burners, I'm not too fussy. The main thing is that it has to work good, burn dual layer discs, and not be too expensive. I've not bothered making the switch to Blu-Ray, and even if I had I rarely watch movies on my PC anyway. I was pretty happy with the LG burner I had in the last computer, but this ASUS DRW-24B1ST was a couple of dollars cheaper so I decided to give it a shot instead this time around. On top of that, both the motherboard and the video card I was installing were also ASUS products, so I figured why not go for the trifecta.

Looks

The ASUS DRW-24B1ST is an average looking drive. The front face has a black matte finish with an ASUS logo in the middle of the tray. It has a DVD Multi logo and an RW DVD+R DL logo on the left side, along with an X Multi and a CD Rewritable logo on the right side of the tray. The eject button has rounded corners and is in the regular bottom right position, and has a silent but tactile click when pressed. Above the eject button is the standard pinhole to insert a paperclip or similar to manually open the drive. Lastly, we have a green activity LED about an inch away from the eject button.

It's a fairly light-weight drive (650g) with a standard 5.25 inch form factor. That's a bit misleading, since the 5.25 inch form factor is really 5.75" wide by 1.63" tall and 8" long. The DRW-24B1ST is about 7" long, which means you shouldn't have any trouble fitting it in a Micro ATX case even with a top mounted power supply directly behind it.

It is easy to install, just slide it into an open 5.25 inch drive bay, install the 4 included mounting screws, plug in the SATA data and power cables, and you're all set. There are no extra drivers included or necessary, but you can install the included Nero Essentials if you have no other disc burning software on your computer.

Details

The ASUS DRW-24B1ST is an internal tray loading DVD burner that hooks up via an SATA cable. It has a 2MB cache and features a 150ms access time for either DVDs or CDs. It can be mounted either vertically or horizontally, and works with both 12cm and 8cm discs. It supports Audio CD, Video CD, CD-I, CD-Extra, Photo CD, CD-Text, CD-ROM/XA, Multi-session CD and DVD Video formats.

Read/Write Speeds: DVD+R 16x/24x, DVD-R 16x/24x, DVD+RW 12x/8x, DVD-RW 12x/6x, DVD-ROM 16x, DVD+R DL 12x/12x, DVD-R DL 12x/12x, DVD-ROM DL 12x/12x, CD-R 40x/48x, CD-RW 40x/24x, DVD-RAM 12x, DVD Video, Playback 6x, VCD Playback 16x, Audio CD Playback 16x. Not that it really matters to me if my drive will burn a DVD+R at 24x, because all the DVDs I buy are rated for 16x burns - on top of that, I usually burn them at 8x so that I make sure they come out correctly. The slower the better, if you've got the time to wait. It probably takes me between 4 and 5 minutes to burn a full DVD at 16x, and 8 to 10 minutes to burn one at 8x.

Despite the Auto Vibration Reducing System that was made to reduce noise and vibration, the drive is louder than my previous LG drive, especially when it's spun up to a high speed. It's not terrible, but it would certainly be an inconvenience if you installed this drive in a home theater PC or if you were putting together a silent system.

This DVD burner has an operating temperature of 5ºC to 45ºC and a storage temperature of -20ºC to 60º. It works in humidity ranging from 20% to 80% (non-condensing) and can be stored in humidity ranging from 15% to 90% (non-condensing). It comes with a 1 year limited warranty on parts and labor from the manufacturer.

The ASUS DRW-24B1ST comes bundled Nero Essentials and E-Hammer software. Nero Essentials is an OEM software suite for playing and recording CDs and DVDs. E-Hammer lets you permanently delete data on recordable CDs and DVDs. If you delete the data, it can never be restored or recovered and you will no longer be able to read the disc. It helps with data security, but be careful playing with it so you don't destroy anything important.

The drive works well and never has a problem reading discs. A couple of my game discs have a few scratches on them and it reads them quickly and without issues as well. It works just as well at recording discs, never giving me coasters if I use decent quality discs to start with. I've had coasters from cheap discs, but that is to be expected and is most likely the fault of the discs.

System Requirements

Processor: Pentium 300 MHz
RAM: 128 MB
Hard Drive: 10 GB
Operating System: Windows 7, Vista, 2000, XP

Like many products the ASUS DRW-24B1ST has no mention of Linux, but it performs flawlessly and requires no special steps to work in Linux Mint 11. I imagine it would work just as well in a Mac, but I have no way to test that claim.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Logitech "Couch Mouse" M515 Wireless Mouse

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Long range, long battery life, perfect signal, this thing is spectacular
Cons: None

Introduction

I've had terrible luck with wireless mice in the past. Not that they're all terrible, some are comfortable and work well - but they always eat batteries so fast as to render them unusable to me. I'll pick up a mouse that claims to have a 6 month battery life, and two weeks later I'll already have to replace the batteries. This gets to be expensive, because you have to use good quality batteries - if you use cheap batteries it'll only end up lasting one week. Not only that, but of course the batteries always seem to die at the most inopportune moment possible.

I've long said that if I ever picked up another wireless mouse in the future, it would be one with a recharging cradle so that I didn't have to worry about replacing the batteries. However, I saw this Logitech Couch Mouse M515 Wireless Mouse while I was browsing the electronics department at Wal-Mart, and it looked pretty great. I'm a big fan of Logitech products, having had great luck with them in the past. The Couch Mouse claims be designed for better browsing on your couch, bed or carpet with it's easy gliding base. I figured this would be handy to not only use with my desktop to eliminate the mouse cord, but it would also be easy to bring along with the laptop if it would really work on different types of surfaces. The sticking point, however, was that it claims to have a 2 year battery life! I'm going on 4 months now and haven't had to replace the batteries yet, and I picked this up for only $30 - so even if the batteries were to die tomorrow I'd be completely satisfied.

I've been using the Logitech M100 Mouse for quite a while prior to this purchase. I love the mouse, but having a cord constantly getting hung up around my speaker is annoying. As much as I like the M100, I've recently replaced it with this M515 Couch Mouse on my main computer that I use most often. I also picked up a Logitech K120 Keyboard to use in conjunction with this mouse.

Description

The Logitech Couch Mouse M515 Wireless Mouse is a three button mouse, but instead of using the mouse wheel as the middle button it features a small raised square button set just behind the mouse wheel instead. This is necessary because of yet another feature I like about this mouse - the switchable scroll wheel. With one press of the wheel, the Logitech Hyper-Fast Scrolling kicks in and your mouse wheel freely spins to smoothly scroll through the longest web pages in a single spin. Press it again and you revert to a regular click-to-click scrolling mode. I always liked the click-to-click mode, but after using the smooth scrolling for a while I find it hard to go back to doing it the other way. You can scroll as fast or as slow as you want, and it's just so smooth and fluid.

The Couch Mouse is slightly smaller than a full-sized desktop mouse, but not much. It has a symmetrical design allowing it to be used either left or right-handed. It measures 4 inches long, 2.25 inches wide and 1.5 inches tall. It's just slightly heavier than my Logitech M100 Mouse without the batteries inserted, but it's still not a heavy mouse. The buttons operate smoothly and give a firm, audible click for feedback when pressed. The sides and bottom of the mouse are black and it's grey on top. It also features a sealed bottom so that fuzz doesn't collect around the optical sensor when you use the mouse on some of the strange surfaces it supposedly works on. The mouse also has soft rubber sides that make it comfortable to hold onto.

On top of that, the mouse wheel allows for easy navigation of websites. Pushing the wheel to the left while in your web browser is the same as pressing the back button, while pushing it to the right works just like pressing the forward button. This is exceptionally handy when I'm sitting 20 feet away in the living room on the couch and browsing the web from my computer in the other room via an HDMI cable hooked up to the television. Yes, I said 20 feet - and using a couch cushion for a mouse pad to boot. This 2.4GHz wireless mouse works brilliantly for browsing Epinions from the comfort of my living room, as well as navigating Hulu or Netflix. There's no lag or stuttering, no signal loss, and it would probably work from even further away - but I'm not going to go outside and sit in my truck to test it.

The easy gliding base claims to make mousing around on couches, blankets, cushions, clothing, carpets and desks easy - so how is it? Great. I've tried it on the carpet, the arm as well as the seat of a cloth couch, a leather chair, my shirt, some curtains, a pad of paper, a cardboard box. Flawless movement all around. The only place I've found that it does not work, is on the textured plastic of this 6 foot fold up table I use for a desk - it hardly moves at all there. I just made sure to keep my existing mouse pad for use here on the desk and it's great.

The Logitech Couch Mouse M515 Wireless Mouse's resolution is not explicitly stated on the package or in any of the documentation, nor could I find the information on Logitech's website. However, It tracks smoothly and accurately and seems to be somewhere around the 1000 DPI mark.

Changing batteries is easy, the back of the bottom of the mouse slides off exposing a cavity where you can place 2 AA batteries. The batteries go on on each side of the mouse, which helps keep it balanced. In between the batteries, there is a small place to store the USB unifying nano receiver while transporting the mouse. This is convenient when you want to throw the mouse into a bag with your laptop and not have to worry about losing the small receiver. There's a recessed on/off button on the bottom of the mouse as well so that you can shut the mouse off to conserve battery life.

Not that the on/off button is necessary all the time. One of the reasons the Logitech M515 Wireless Mouse has such terrific battery life is the fact that it only turns on when you're actually gripping the mouse. It stays asleep when you're not holding it, greatly prolonging the battery. When you're ready to use it again, it instantly kicks back on with no noticeable lag time - which means you don't have to wait endlessly for it to come out of sleep mode. I really love this feature, as it gives me the best of both features - an always-on mouse, and good battery life. There's a battery indicator light just behind the middle mouse button that will turn red when there are only a couple of weeks of battery life left.

The USB unifying nano receiver is great as well. It's tiny, only protruding 1/4" or so from the USB port. It's amazing that the signal and range are so good on something packed into such a little space. Another nifty feature of the unifying receiver is the fact that it will work with up to 6 compatible wireless devices. For example, adding a Logitech wireless keyboard. This is especially great for laptops and computers with a limited number of USB ports, as it allows you to use multiple devices with one receiver. Using the unifying feature will require downloading the unifying software from Logitech's website, as this mouse does not come with a software disc. Unfortunately I don't have another Logitech wireless product to test the feature.

System Requirements

Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7
Mac OS X 10.5 or later
USB port

It also works perfectly fine in Linux, though the packaging and documentation makes no mention of it. The tilt left and right feature is not supported on Mac computers, but seems to work just fine in Linux Mint 11. There are no drivers or software included with the mouse, and none are required for normal operation.

Overall the Logitech Couch Mouse M515 Wireless Mouse is a terrific mouse. It has changed my views on wireless mice in general by working as advertised, being durable and reliable, having no latency or dropped connections, and most importantly by having a battery life that doesn't require weekly replacement batteries.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Samsung SpinPoint F4 Hard Drive


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Reliable, huge capacity, Advanced Format, generally quiet running drive
Cons: Long spin up time

Current System

AMD Athlon II X3 450 3.2GHz Processor
Antec 300 Case
ASUS DRW-24B1ST 24x DVD Burner
ASUS M4A87TD EVO AMD870 Motherboard
ASUS Radeon HD 6850 1GB Video Card
Corsair Builder Series CX600 PSU
G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB Hard Drive
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Samsung SyncMaster 2333T 23" LCD Widescreen Monitor

When I assembled this new computer in March of 2011, I used a 1 TB Samsung Spinpoint F3 SATA-II hard drive as the main system drive. I knew I would want a second hard drive for storage purposes, so I installed this 2 TB Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II hard drive that I had purchased a few months before. It's a slower 5400 RPM drive, but since it was only going to be used for storage and not as the main system drive I wasn't overly concerned with the speed.

This was the first Samsung drive I've purchased in the last number of years, so I didn't know exactly what to expect going in. I've been really happy with my previous drives from Western Digital, Maxtor and Seagate, but this drive was a little cheaper per gigabyte so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I'm very pleased with it. It's been dependable, and the sheer capacity of the drive is enough that I don't foresee having to purchase an additional drive any time soon.

I ordered it as a bare OEM from Newegg, so I received it in a clear plastic case with a small bag containing 4 mounting screws. My motherboard came with a couple of SATA cables which I used hook the drive up, and it also came with thumb screws for my hard drives so I did not use the enclosed mounting screws.

Installation is as easy as sliding the hard drive into an empty 3.5" bay and putting in the 4 mounting screws. The next step in the process is to plug one end of an SATA cable into the drive and the other end into an available SATA-II port on the motherboard. Finally, plug in an available SATA power connector from the power supply into the back of the hard drive. After that I formatted it in Windows 7 with a single NTFS partition so that the drive would be available for use in both Windows 7 and Linux Mint.

Details

It's 3 platter hard drive with 6 read/write heads. It rotates at 5400 RPM with a rotation time of 11.11 ms and an average rotational latency of 5.56 ms. It features a 32 MB cache and has a total capacity of 1863.0 GB (2,000,396,742,656 bytes) when formatted with a single NTFS partition.

The Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II hard drive is a  standard desktop 3.5" form factor, measuring 4 inches wide, 5.8 inches long, 1 inch tall and weighing 1.4 pounds. It uses 0.9 watts of power in standby, 7.7 watts idle and 9.5 watts while seeking. After 41 days, 17 hours of power on time, the current drive temperature is 31ºC and the maximum temperature over the entire lifespan of the drive is 39ºC.

It uses first generation Advanced Formatting, the IDEMA standard that uses 4096 bytes per sector instead of 512 bytes. This allows the drive capacity to be used for large files more efficiently, as well as allowing for better error correction to keep your data intact. While this is mostly a transparent change for modern operating systems such as Windows 7, Vista, Mac OS X 10.6 and newer Linux distributions - Windows XP users will need to download the Samsung Alignment Tool from samsung.com to get the best performance out of their drive.

The Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II hard drive features SilentSeek and NoiseGuard technology, and ATA Automatic Acoustic Management which helps keep the drive quiet during operation. It also has a shock and rotational vibration sensor and comes with a 3 year limited warranty from Samsung.

Performance

Since the Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen is only a 5400 RPM drive, I expected a little slower speed. The worst part of the performance is the drive's 13 second average spin up time. Since I don't use the drive regularly, only when I want to copy files to or from my extra storage space, it needs to spin up to be ready to use more often than not and that 13 seconds seems like an eternity. The drive is also loud during spin up, when it's really quiet the rest of the time.

Benchmarking of this hard drive was done using DiskMark 1.0.0.7 from NetworkDLS. The first run was done with the default settings, using many runs with a fairly small set size to simulate copying multiple smaller files. This included 128 files of 64 KB each, and the test was ran 320 times for a total of 2.5 GB. The second run was done with a lot less runs, but a much larger set size to simulate copying a smaller number of much larger files. This included 128 files of 6.25 MB each, and ran 32 times for a total of 25 GB.

Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II (5400 RPM)
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 64.00 KB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 8.00 MB, Runs: 320, Total Set Size: 2.50 GB
Write Performance: Min: 98.68 MB/s, Max: 164.24 MB/s, Average: 153.68 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 88.17 MB/s, Max: 174.24 MB/s, Average: 168.09 MB/s

Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II (5400 RPM)
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 6.25 MB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 800.00 MB, Runs: 32, Total Set Size: 25.00 GB
Write Performance: Min: 97.73 MB/s, Max: 101.70 MB/s, Average: 99.25 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 99.17 MB/s, Max: 100.17 MB/s, Average: 99.79 MB/s


The same set of tests was then completed on my 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3 SATA-II hard drive for comparison. The F3 is a 7200 RPM hard drive and has standard 512 byte sectors, while the F4 EcoGreen is a 5400 RPM hard drive with the Advanced Format 4096 byte sectors. Both drives were hooked up via SATA Rev 2.6.

Since both drives are Samsung Spinpoint drives, this should tell us a lot about how the larger capacity, slower speed F4 EcoGreen drive measures up to it's predecessor.

Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F3 SATA-II (7200 RPM)
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 64.00 KB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 8.00 MB, Runs: 320, Total Set Size: 2.50 GB
Write Performance: Min: 59.37 MB/s, Max: 131.66 MB/s, Average: 127.63 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 63.38 MB/s, Max: 153.97 MB/s, Average: 151.30 MB/s

Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F3 SATA-II (7200 RPM)
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 6.25 MB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 800.00 MB, Runs: 32, Total Set Size: 25.00 GB
Write Performance: Min: 91.91 MB/s, Max: 120.07 MB/s, Average: 116.03 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 112.78 MB/s, Max: 121.74 MB/s, Average: 120.15 MB/s


As we can see, the Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen wasn't too much different than the Samsung Spinpoint F3, despite being a 5400 RPM drive instead of a 7200 RPM. It was a little slower with larger files, but it was somehow actually faster across the board when copying many very small files. The tests were ran 3 times on each drive, and the middle result was used.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Desk 2 TB USB 3.0 Hard Drive


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Lots of space, fast transfer with USB 3.0, Mameo Instant Backup isn't terrible
Cons: Annoying trial versions of stuff in the installer, at least not installed by default

Introduction

The Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex 2 TB USB 3.0 External Hard Drive is pretty good as far as external hard drives go. It was picked up at Wal-Mart for $99 so we could back up other computers onto it. When I was in Wal-Mart again the other day, I seen they were down to only $89 now. Terrific good price for a 2 TB external hard drive, let alone one with USB 3.0 support. The other choice would have been a Western Digital MyBook sitting on the shelf beside the GoFlex, but for the same 2 TB of space the MyBook would have been $15 more expensive.

My other two external hard drives were just enclosures that I had purchased separately and placed internal 3.5" desktop hard drives into. One of the internal drives is a Western Digital and the other is a Maxtor. They're still holding up well after many years, but they're both much smaller drives, and neither is USB 3.0, so it was time for an upgrade. While not all of the computers I would be backing up have USB 3.0 ports, some do, and the ones that do are the ones that have the most data to backup anyway. The drive had to be backwards compatible with USB 2.0 for the other computers though, and this one fit the bill nicely.

Cutting the tape from the fully recyclable retail box, the hard drive itself was enclosed in a plastic bag and encased in two pieces of cardboard that formed around each side to leave empty space around the drive for padding. A folded piece of cardboard folded around the 4 foot USB 3.0 cable and the power adapter kept them in a corner away from the drive so they didn't bang into it. There was a tiny quick start guide tucked into the side to round out the package's contents.

GoFlex Desk

The hard drive enclosure weighs about 2.4 pounds. It's approximately 6.22 inches tall, 1.73 inches wide and 4.88 inches deep when standing vertically; the drive can also be placed horizontally. It houses a regular 3.5" desktop hard drive inside a thin enclosure, with the power and data cords plugging into the base portion. The whole base portion can be swapped out for one that works with FireWire instead of USB, but it's pretty expensive and probably not worth it.

There's an activity light on the base, as well as 4 LEDs that give you a visual gauge as to how much of the drive's capacity is available. The drive is pre-loaded with encrypted backup software from Memeo, as well as an NTFS driver for Mac. It contradicts itself by saying you can share movies, photos, music and more between PC and Mac without reformatting, and then saying in small print that reformatting may be required for some Mac applications.

The drive is Plug-and-Play with any modern operating system. The box says it works with PC and Mac; I've had it plugged into a 64-bit Windows 7 machine and an old 32-bit version of Linux Mint and it was immediately recognized and available in both operating systems. Backing up my computers was no trouble, and there's a ton of space left over. 2 TB of hard drive space is enough to store around 33,000 hours of digital music, 640,000 digital photos, 2,000 hours of digital video, or 500 DVD quality movies.

Software

When I ran the installer in Windows 7, it installed the Seagate Dashboard program and gave me the choice of installing Memeo Instant Backup or an Extended Trial of Memeo Premium Backup. Then it wanted me to install an extended trial of Memeo Sync, which I declined. I did install the Instant Backup to test it out, and it's pretty straight-forward. It has a drop down box to pick which drive you want to back up to, and a bar displaying how much space is required and how much is available on the selected drive. There's a Start Backup button, along with a Restore button.

There's also a break-down of what type of stuff is going to be backed up, and it's reflected in the bar. Mine, for example, lists 80.7 MB of documents and displays that portion in purple on the bar. 83.7 MB of pictures displayed in blue, 3.1 GB of music in orange, 6.7 GB of videos in green and 81.3 GB in yellow labeled "other", totalling 91.3 GB. This barely puts a dent in the total capacity bar, leaving plenty of room to back up the other computers onto the drive as well.

There's also a button labeled Advanced Options. This acts as a list of specific things you want to back up instead of backing up the whole computer. It's easy to use, you can even drag folders into the list to select them for backing up. There's also a check box here to encrypt your backup with a password.

Seagate Dashboard - Powered by Memeo

There's not a whole lot to the Dashboard, it's just a small window with a few options in it. At the top it has a stock picture of the hard drive, a drop down box to select your drive in case you have more than one supported drive installed, and a clickable link for drive settings. In the drive settings you have four tabs, the first of which is Power Settings. The only option here is to choose one of 12 options to set how long your drive must be inactive before it goes into power saving mode. The options range from 3, 4, 5, 15 or 30 minutes, to 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 hours, or never. The next tab is LED Settings, which again only has one option. Toggle the drive activity and status lights on and off.

The third tab is Test Drive, which says to click the Test button to make sure your drive is functioning properly. It also states that the test will not affect the contents of your drive. I clicked the Test button, which took about 30 seconds, the progress bar got to 100% and it said the testing had completed. "Your external drive is functioning normally." It gave no indication as to what it tested or how, so I can only assume this is useful in some way. The last tab is Drive Information, which simply shows the drive's serial number and firmware version (my firmware is 0D.1.2). It also lists the drive's volume label, capacity, free space and how the file system is formatted.

Below the drop-down and Drive Settings is a small bar showing the total hard drive space, the amount of space that is used and the amount left available. Further below that is a section called My Applications, which for me only has Instant Backup listed. I can only assume if you installed the extended trial of Memeo Premium Backup or Memeo Sync from the software installer, they would be listed here as well.

Finally at the bottom of the Dashboard is an Application Store area, where you can purchase other Memeo products such as Memeo Premium Backup, Memeo Sync, Memeo Send or Memeo Share.

System Requirements

Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP (32-bit and 64-bit) operating system or
Mac OS X operating system 10.4.11, 10.5.8, or 10.6.2 (32-bit kernel only)
SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port (required for USB 3.0 transfer speeds or backwards compatible with USB 2.0 ports at USB 2.0 transfer speeds)

Performance

My Seagate GoFlex Desk came with SuperSpeed USB 3.0 support, which claims to be up to 10 times faster than USB 2.0. Obviously it's never as good as the packaging will lead you to believe, so just how much faster is it? Let's find out.

Benchmarking of this hard drive was done using DiskMark 1.0.0.7 from NetworkDLS. The first run was done with the default settings, using many runs with a fairly small set size to simulate copying multiple smaller files. This included 128 files of 64 KB each, and the test was ran 320 times for a total of 2.5 GB. The second run was done with a lot less runs, but a much larger set size to simulate working with a smaller number of much larger files. This included 128 files of 6.25 MB each, and ran 32 times for a total of 25 GB. Each test was completed once with the drive hooked up via USB 3.0, and then again with the drive hooked up to a USB 2.0 port.

Configuration: USB 3.0
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 64.00 KB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 8.00 MB, Runs: 320, Total Set Size: 2.50 GB
Write Performance: Min: 22.38 MB/s, Max: 94.66 MB/s, Average: 87.28 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 73.30 MB/s, Max: 117.85 MB/s, Average: 115.38 MB/s

Configuration: USB 3.0
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 6.25 MB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 800.00 MB, Runs: 32, Total Set Size: 25.00 GB
Write Performance: Min: 71.03 MB/s, Max: 118.26 MB/s, Average: 115.39 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 111.29 MB/s, Max: 122.10 MB/s, Average: 121.36 MB/s

Configuration: USB 2.0
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 64.00 KB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 8.00 MB, Runs: 320, Total Set Size: 2.50 GB
Write Performance: Min: 11.57 MB/s, Max: 25.71 MB/s, Average: 23.11 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 19.01 MB/s, Max: 28.94 MB/s, Average: 28.21 MB/s

Configuration: USB 2.0
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 6.25 MB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 800.00 MB, Runs: 32, Total Set Size: 25.00 GB
Write Performance: Min: 27.92 MB/s, Max: 31.26 MB/s, Average: 30.98 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 32.53 MB/s, Max: 33.01 MB/s, Average: 32.96 MB/s

As we can see, it's nowhere near 10 times as fast - but we didn't expect it to be. It does appear to be 3 or 4 times faster with USB 3.0 than it is with USB 2.0, and it's a little faster with fewer large files than with many small files. Overall I'm very happy with it, and the USB 3.0 makes backing up some of the computers around here a breeze.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Samsung SyncMaster 2333T 23" Monitor

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Lots of screen real-estate, full quality 1080p HD, relatively inexpensive
Cons: No DisplayPort or HDMI port, controls on the side instead of the front

Introduction

I had used an older 4:3 Samsung SyncMaster 19 inch flat panel monitor for many years. The whole time I owned it, I never had a single problem with it. It looked great, had no dead or stuck pixels and had plenty of screen real-estate at it's native resolution of 1280x1024. I liked it so much that I never bothered upgrading to a larger monitor or to a widescreen. Well, after about 10 years of nearly 24/7 use, it finally decided one day that it no longer wanted to power on so off I went browsing Newegg for a replacement.

I obviously was going to get a bigger monitor since I was replacing it anyway, and I was long overdue for a widescreen. Even if I hadn't wanted a widescreen, the standard 4:3 monitors seem to be getting phased out and aren't as common anyway. Newegg was the logical choice as a retailer as they usually have competitive pricing and I've racked up tens of thousands of dollars worth of purchases from them over the years.

I looked at a number of monitors in my price range of about $150, and was almost set on a nice 23" Acer. I even had the Acer monitor in my cart, but when I got to the last page of monitors I noticed this 23" Samsung SyncMaster 2333T for only a few dollars more. Since I loved my old SyncMaster so much, I knew instantly I wanted the new SyncMaster instead of the Acer. It happened to be $159 with free shipping and a $10 mail in rebate, so after the rebate it ended up being $1 cheaper than the $150 Acer anyway.

Unboxing

My SyncMaster 2333T arrived in a standard brown box cardboard box from Samsung, and was packed well enough to remain undamaged while traveling from New Jersey to Michigan via UPS ground. The screen itself was surrounded by 2 rigid pieces of Styrofoam to keep it secure and hold it in place for transport. Also include in the box was the monitor base, a standard power cord, a dust cloth, a cable arrangement link, a D-Sub cable, a driver CD and a user manual. Yea, I said D-Sub cable, Samsung didn't include a DVI cable with this monitor for some reason.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how much bigger this monitor was than my old one. I had already gotten rid of the old one, but the 2333T appeared to be approximately the same height -- but a good 50% wider than the old one. This monitor is 21.94 inches wide, 14.4 inches tall and 2.81 inches deep. The stand adds a couple of inches to the height, and the base of the stand is about 8 inches deep to support the monitor. The Samsung SyncMaster 2333T weighs 11.68 pounds.

The whole monitor is black, with the front being a little glossy. It looks nice, but unfortunately collects dust and fingerprints. The bezel around the actual screen is approximately an inch wide, except for the bottom where it's closer to 2 inches on the sides and probably 3 inches in the center where it rounds down to the blue power LED. The LED appears to be diffused through a piece of plastic so it's not overly bright, and thus the power indicator light ends up being a couple inches wide across the center of the bottom of the monitor.

The central back portion of the monitor is a flat black, and has about 10 strange looking flower-type designs of various sizes engraved in the plastic. I was glad to see a standard 100mm square VESA wall mount, despite the fact that I don't currently use it. When I pick up a second monitor, I had planned to grab one of those dual monitor stands and put both monitors on it side by side. I figured the VESA mount would help to facilitate the process.

Unfortunately upon closer examination of the monitor, I realized that may be a little more difficult than I had anticipated. The power and control buttons for this monitor are on the side of the monitor instead of the front face. Directly on the side. This means that any dual monitor mount that butts two monitors up against each other like I wanted would make it impossible for me to access the power button or adjust the monitor in any way. Not a deal breaker by any means, but it means that when I get a second one it will be sitting on the desk on it's base beside this one instead of in a mount.

At least the base is decent, so that won't be so terrible. The screw that goes from the bottom of the base up into the monitor seemed a little short to me when I first got the monitor -- but the base has been attached for nearly a year now and been jostled and bumped around many times with no issues. While the monitor will wobble a bit if I shake my "desk" (my desk is a six foot long folding table, so it's a little less stable than most) or slam the door, it otherwise seems to hold the monitor pretty steady. It also tilts from -1º (forward) to approximately 16º (backward), give or take a degree. Every few days I notice the monitor is almost straight again, so the tilting mechanism must very slowly release as the monitor gets jostled around from my desk wobbling.

Details

The Samsung SyncMaster 2333T is a 23 inch widescreen TFT/LCD monitor. It features a default resolution of 1920x1080, a 16:9 aspect ratio and a viewing angle of 178 degrees both horizontally and vertically. The viewing angle is great, and allows you to view the screen from far off to either side as well as above or below the monitor. It has an 8ms response time, which is the time it takes a single pixel to switch from a full black color to full white and back again. There are some expensive monitors that have 1ms response times, and some old ones that have upwards of 16ms. Lower values help to prevent ghosting in movies and games. There is a slight amount, as 8ms isn't all that terrific, but it's not enough to hamper my gameplay. In comparison, my old 19" SyncMaster had a 5ms response time.

It has an operating temperature of 50ºF (10ºC) to 104ºF (45ºC) and operates in a range of humidity from 10% to 80%, non-condensing. You can store the monitor in temperatures ranging from -4ºF (-20ºC) to 113ºF (45ºC), and in humidity ranging from 5% to 95%, non-condensing. When the monitor is on it uses approximately 45 watts of power. When it's off, or in power saving mode (the power LED is flashing) it uses less than 1 watt.

The 2333T features a 4,000:1 contrast ratio, and a 50,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio. The Samsung SyncMaster 2333T monitor is Plug & Play compatible in accordance with the VESA international standard DDC 2B.

There are no DisplayPort or Mini DisplayPorts on this monitor. This means if you plan to use this monitor in an Eyefinity setup, you'll either have to use a different make/model at least for the 3rd monitor, or purchase an active DisplayPort to DVI adapter. Unfortunately, there is not a single HDMI port either. I knew this before I made the purchase, but it's still a little disappointing.

The SyncMaster 2333T will display HD 1080p video at full quality. Mine is connected via a DVI-D cable that I had left over from my previous monitor. I use this monitor for a lot of gaming, web browsing and editing text documents. I also watch my fair share of videos on YouTube, Netflix and Hulu on this monitor. The display quality is excellent -- colors are lucid and vibrant, text is crisp and clear. There is some very minimal ghosting during heavy fast-paced action, but it's barely discernible during normal use. This can be reduced by setting the monitor's response time to "Fastest" in the menu while you play fast-paced games or watch movies.

I have absolutely no dead or stuck pixels in my monitor; there is however an insignificant amount of bleed-through on the left side of the screen. It is imperceptible except for rare occasions when your screen is really dark and you are in a really dark room, then you can see the smallest amount of white light shining through from behind the left corners of the monitor. I wouldn't have even noticed it if I hadn't been specifically looking for it.

Controls/OSD

The language of the OSD (On Screen Display) menu can be set to English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Swedish, Russian, Portuguese or Turkish.

There are six buttons on the bottom right side of the monitor. The top brings up the OSD menu while the next two scroll up and down through the menu and the fourth button is used to select an option from the menu. The final two buttons are the auto-adjust button followed by the power button at the bottom. If you press the selection button without the OSD menu on the screen, it switches the monitor between analog and digital input modes. The analog mode is used when the monitor is connected with the D-Sub cable, and the digital mode is for use with the (optional, not included) DVI cable.

Without the OSD menu on the screen, the "scroll up" button is a shortcut to the brightness controls and the "scroll down" button is a shortcut to the MagicBright feature of the monitor by default. The auto-adjust button is only available in analog mode with the D-Sub connector, and automatically adjusts the screen settings when you press it.

The MagicBright feature provides picture presets that are supposedly optimized for different uses. This can be set to Custom, Text, Game, Sport, Movie or Dynamic Contrast. Text mode is for editing a document and Internet mode is for surfing the net with text and pictures. Game mode is for playing games that require a fast screen refresh rate and have lots of graphics. Sport mode is for watching games that have a lot of fast movement, while Movie mode attempts to set your brightness and sharpness to be close to a television's settings for best viewing. Dynamic Contrast automatically adjusts the contrast so bright pictures and dark pictures are pretty well balanced overall. Finally, Custom mode lets you configure the brightness and contrast yourself.

You can perform all the standard adjustments from the OSD menu. Brightness, contrast, sharpness, and response time. Set the horizontal and vertical position and image size, the menu transparency, etc. There's also an option to switch between PC and AV (audio video) mode, which toggles the available options in the Image Size menu. Setting this to PC (default) lets you choose between Auto or Wide modes. Auto leaves the display at the default aspect ratio of the input, and wide makes it show in full screen regardless of the input aspect ratio. The response time is set to "Faster" by default, and the manual recommends you leave it on "Normal" or "Faster" when not watching a movie.

Setting PC/AV to AV mode lets you choose between 4:3, 16:9, or Screen Fit. 4:3 and 16:9 obviously do as their names imply and display your content at their respective aspect ratios. Screen Fit makes it so that if a 720p, 1080i or 1080p signal comes through the DVI cable then it is displayed unaltered and without truncating it.

Final Thoughts

I love the Samsung SyncMaster 2333T, and recommend it with a couple of caveats. First, the lack of so much as a single HDMI port is a little disappointing. Make sure you keep this in mind if you're thinking about purchasing one of these monitors. I did not plan to hook any HDMI inputs up to my monitor in the first place because they're all hooked up to the television in the living room. It's always a nice option to have though, and you never know what new gadgets I may get in the next year that I might end up wishing it did have a port for.

The other thing was the control buttons being on the side of the monitor instead of the front. Definitely a no-no if you're going to mount two of these butted up against each other, as the controls on one of them will be inaccessible. Other than those couple things to be aware of prior to purchase, I have no qualms with the Samsung SyncMaster 2333T monitor whatsoever.

Current System

AMD Athlon II X3 450 3.2GHz Processor
Antec 300 Case
ASUS DRW-24B1ST 24x DVD Burner
ASUS M4A87TD EVO AMD870 Motherboard
ASUS Radeon HD 6850 1GB Video Card
Corsair Builder Series CX600 PSU
G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB Hard Drive
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Samsung SyncMaster 2333T 23" LCD Widescreen Monitor

Friday, October 21, 2011

Transcend USB 2.0 Card Reader


 
 
Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Portable, handy, easy to use and does it's job
Cons: Cap could be lost easy and only fits on one direction
 
Having long ago lost the cord to our digital camera, I was forced to remove the pictures from it in a ridiculous fashion to share them with relatives who don't have internet access. Take the SD card out of the camera, put it in the laptop. Copy the pictures from the laptop and put them on a flash drive. Take the flash drive to my relative's house and copy the pictures to their computer. Annoying and unnecessary, it was apparently time to pick up a cheap card reader.

Since I wanted to be able to copy files at other people's houses, I obviously had to get an external card reader. Since USB is the most common and everyone has it, that was the obvious choice. I picked up a generic card reader from some random website for $1.99 and free shipping from Hong Kong. Well that was a brilliant idea, it didn't work from the start and got tossed in the trash. Next time I went to a reputable website and picked up the cheapest SD card reader I could find with a good user rating. Being able to read microSD (TransFlash) was a plus, as that means the card in my Motorola Droid could also be used in the card reader if I didn't have my USB cable with me. Also, being able to read SDHC was a major plus. The little 1 GB card in the digital camera is a regular SD card and not HC, but chances are when I upgrade the card it will likely be a SDHC for the extra capacity.

Taking all the factors into account, I ended up choosing the Transcend TS-RDP5K USB Card Reader. Not only does it meet my requirements of being inexpensive, well rated, and reading SD/SDHC/microSD cards, but it also reads MMC, MCplus, MMCmobile, RS-MMC, and Memory Stick Micro (M2) cards. It will also read miniSD, miniSDHC and MMCmicro cards with an adapter (not included).

The card reader itself is almost the exact same size as my flash drive at 66.9mm by 22.6mm by 12mm (about 2.5" x 1" x .5"). It weighs 13 grams (about half an ounce) and has an operating temperature of 0ºC (32ºF) to 70ºC (158ºF). It arrived in a colorful retail blister pack with a quick start guide and warranty information card.

The Transcend USB Card Reader is an attractive glossy black color, except for the USB end of the reader which is neon green colored. The name Transcend and company logo are on the top face of the reader, and the FCC sticker is on the bottom face. The cap is also glossy black and devoid of any writing or stickers. The cap looks plain and is unattached to the drive by any means, but unfortunately only fits one direction onto the card reader. That's annoying since it looks exactly on the top as it does on the bottom.

The card reader isn't as bulky as the generic one I previously threw away. Plugging it into a horizontal-facing USB port like on the front of my computer leaves whatever memory card is inserted into the side of it sticking slightly out to the right of the card reader. Plugging it into a vertical-facing USB port in the back of my computer leaves the memory card sticking slightly out the bottom of the card reader. Even a full-size SD card doesn't stick out very far, maybe half the total SD card's width. This lets the card reader leave plenty of room for other USB devices to be plugged in around it without interfering.

Check Flash 1.16.2 shows this Transcend USB Card Reader boasting a read speed of 7.40 MB/s and a write speed of 7.07 MB/s when reading and writing from a standard 1 GB SD card. It was a hair slower with the microSD card out of my Droid, boasting a read speed of 7.19 and a write speed of 6.82 MB/s.

The Transcend TS-RDP5K USB Card Reader is Plug & Play, and requires no drivers with Windows 7/Vista/XP, Mac OS 10.x or later and Linux Kernel 2.6.3 or later.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Logitech M100 Mouse

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Inexpensive, simple and reliable, easy to use, works great
Cons: Some people may not like lack of extra buttons

Introduction

I go through a lot of mice. For some reason, and for as long as I can remember, I've held my mouse different from most people. I hold it with my hand straight, but the mouse at a diagonal, pointing up and to the right on my mouse pad. This leaves me to hit the left mouse button with my middle finger, scroll the mouse wheel with the middle of my ring finger and hit the right button with the bottom of my ring finger. While this may be odd, I've grown accustomed to it and it works well for me. Unfortunately I tend to somehow wear out my right mouse button a little quicker than most, and I have to get a new mouse button because it quits clicking correctly.

Also due to the way I hold my mouse, an ergonomic mouse is practically unusable to me, as are smaller travel sized mice. The same holds true for many of the newer mice with extra buttons, or goofy trim pieces everywhere. On top of that, I just plain hate the looks of many of those flashy mice. I saw a review the other day of a mouse shaped like a car, and while that was awesome as heck, I wouldn't (even if I was able to) use it myself.

PS2, USB, Wireless or Bluetooth?

The wireless and Bluetooth mice both have similar pros and cons. I wanted a wired mouse because I've had such terrible luck with the battery life in wireless mice in the past. In addition to this, wireless and Bluetooth mice can experience occasional signal loss and latency. As for a PS2 mouse, while my current computer does have a PS2 port in the back, another computer in the house does not. PS2 mice have already been all but replaced by USB, and soon they will be phased out entirely in the same way serial mice were phased out by PS2. That left me with needing a USB mouse.

Ball, Optical or Laser?

Even if I could still find one for sale, I sure wasn't going with a ball mouse that would skip and stutter and required constant cleaning to function. I also chose not to get a laser mouse. They may be a little more precise, but they also cost more and the little bit of added precision was unnecessary for me. An optical mouse it is then, and the Logitech M100 Mouse features high definition optical tracking at 1000 dpi (dots per inch). This makes for smooth and responsive pointer control that is pretty responsive and doesn't jitter or jump around the screen. It's more than adequate for all my computer needs, including my extensive gaming sessions. It's comfortable in my hand and tracks well on my mouse pad as well on the 6 foot heavy plastic folding table I use as a computer desk.

Description

The Logitech M100 Mouse is a full sized mouse that can be used either left or right-handed due to it's ambidextrous design. It's approximately 4.5 inches long, 2.5 inches wide, and 1.5 inches tall. It's a pretty light-weight mouse, and the cord is about 6 foot long to allow plenty of room to position the mouse precisely where you need it. It's grey in color with a black mouse wheel and trim. The wheel scrolls smoothly with a light clicking noise each notch, and can also be clicked to the side to allow side-to-side scrolling or instant photo zooming. All the buttons click smoothly with a light but firm click. The Logitech M100 Mouse is just your average, three button (2 + wheel) USB mouse without any particularly distinguishing characteristics or features, which is exactly what I wanted.

System Requirements

PC: Windows 7/Vista/XP
Mac: Mac OS X 10.4 or newer
Linux: Linux kernel 2.6 or newer
All: USB port

The package only includes the mouse itself and a thin quick-start guide. No driver software is needed -- just plug it into an available USB port and you're good to go. It does come with a three year limited hardware warranty from Logitech, but it's such an inexpensive mouse in the first place that it would probably not be worth sending back when or if it eventually required replacing.

Final Thoughts

Personally I just buy a new mouse every year anyway, but this one seems to be holding up better than most and maybe I can skip a year this time. It's nice to have the quality and reliability that comes with Logitech mice. I really like this mouse myself because of the ridiculous way I hold mice, but I'm also pretty happy with it in general. There are no real downsides for anyone who doesn't require the extra buttons or ergonomic features of more expensive mice, or extra precise tracking of a laser mouse. Wireless mice are really nice themselves, but between battery life and signal latency they're not a great choice for anyone who plays any twitchy games like first person shooters or people (like me) who use their computer an excessive amount.